PHILADELPHIA – The arrest of a homeless man in the sexual assaults and strangling deaths of three women in a gritty, high-crime neighborhood of Philadelphia might provide some relief to anxious residents, whom police feared would take matters into their own hands.
Antonio Rodriguez, 21, recently released from prison and believed to have been wandering the streets and staying in abandoned homes, was arrested Monday night. He was linked by DNA to the crimes in the Kensington section of the city, police said. The investigation came to be known as the Kensington Strangler case.
Besides the three murders, three other women reported surviving sexual assaults in the area. Two of them said they were choked into unconsciousness.
The attacks took place in a stretch of Kensington known for open prostitution and drugs, although an influx of artists and young homebuyers has made parts of the neighborhood a bit trendier in recent years. The crimes left the neighborhood shaken.
One of the hundreds of posts on a Facebook page titled "Catch the Kensington Strangler, before he catches someone you love" falsely identified a suspect, drawing an angry crowd to his house. He called police, who cleared him and scolded residents.
A year earlier in Kensington, a man suspected of raping an 11-year-old girl was severely beaten by angry neighbors who recognized him from a police photo. He later was charged and pleaded guilty.
In the stranglings case, Mayor Michael Nutter offered a $30,000 reward sponsored by the city and Citizens Crime Commission for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the perpetrator. Separately, the local Fraternal Order of Police and Councilman Frank DiCicco offered $7,000 for help simply leading to an arrest with a DNA match.
Police investigating the series of assaults dating to October had linked the deaths of the three women through DNA: Elaine Goldberg and Nicole Piacentini, both of Philadelphia, and Casey Mahoney, of East Stroudsburg, about 100 miles north. The women, all in their 20s, had struggled with drug addiction. Their bodies were found between early November and mid-December in vacant lots within a 10-block radius.
Rodriguez, known in the area as Black, had not been charged with any crime in the stranglings case, and police had not gotten an arrest warrant for him, Capt. James Clark said.
But state police contacted Philadelphia police earlier in the day Monday about a DNA match between Rodriguez and the crimes, Clark said. The link made by state police in their convicted felon database was "a major break," he said.
A state police representative was not immediately available for comment on why Rodriguez was in their database.
Rodriguez was taken into custody on an unrelated bench warrant after someone phoned in a tip. The arrest came shortly after a news conference at which Clark said Rodriguez was being sought as a "strong" person of interest in the murders.
Rodriguez, who was sought on a bench warrant from a missed court appearance in an unrelated case police wouldn't discuss, was in custody and couldn't be reached for comment.
Clark said Rodriguez recently had been released from prison, but the officer declined to say for what he had been incarcerated for or to detail his criminal history. Clark said it appeared Rodriguez was wandering around Kensington alone.
"Right now, the information we're getting is he's homeless, he's wandering in the area, he's frequenting abandoned houses, sort of just walking around in the Kensington area, so right now we do not believe anyone is helping him out," Clark said.
None of the surviving victims had been shown Rodriguez's photo, but Clark said that would be done.